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Reform Jewish Movement Comments on President Bush's Welfare Reform Plan

Saperstein: "[We] believe that poverty reduction, and not caseload reduction, should be a principal goal of our national welfare policy. It is not enough to cite the decline in caseloads - we must make sure that work pays and families do not remain below the poverty line."

Contact: Alexis Rice or Rachel Burrows 202-387-2800

WASHINGTON, March 1, 2002 - Rabbi David Saperstein, Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, issued the following statement in response to President Bush's new welfare reform proposal announced this week. While commending President Bush for "highlighting the importance of the upcoming welfare reform debate and for recognizing some of the limitations of the 1996 welfare reform law," Rabbi Saperstein noted, "that poverty reduction, and not caseload reduction, should be a principal goal of our national welfare policy."

The complete statement follows:

    We commend President Bush for highlighting the importance of the upcoming welfare reform debate and for recognizing some of the limitations of the 1996 welfare reform law. In particular, we welcome his statement that "we are encouraged by the initial results of welfare reform, but we are not content. We ended welfare as we've known it, yet this is not a post-poverty America. Child poverty is still too high, too many families are strained and fragile and broken - too many Americans still have not found work and the purpose it brings. Because these needs continue, our work is not done."

    There are several promising provisions in President Bush's proposal. We commend President Bush's call for an expansion of food stamp benefits to legal immigrants. Legal immigrants were disproportionately impacted by the 1996 welfare reforms, and we must continue to right those wrongs. We also support President Bush's proposal to encourage states to give child support payments directly to mothers and children.

    While we support initiatives to strengthen families, we hesitate when the government attempts to narrowly define what constitutes a healthy family. We are, therefore, concerned with the President's plan to allocate $300 million for programs to promote only traditional marriage, without strengthening family life in the increasingly diverse contemporary family table.

    We are also concerned that in his remarks introducing the proposal, the President celebrates the fact that, even in a recession, national welfare caseloads are not rising significantly. We know that today soup kitchens and homeless shelters are experiencing a significant rise in the number of families seeking services. Likewise, it is troubling, that in the midst of a recession, the Administration's proposal calls for "tougher" work requirements for poor families. While we support an emphasis on the importance of work, public policy must also reflect economic realities, including the increased numbers of unemployed; this Administration's budget does not reflect the economic realities of our day. The Administration's proposal purports to maintain the same overall funding since the 1996 welfare reform law. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, however, if Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) funding, the federal block grant to states, remains frozen, its inflation-adjusted value will be 22 percent lower than in 1997. Thus, the President's budget, in effect, cuts funding for working families.

    The President's proposal also cuts funding for children. The President's pledge to "continue historically high levels of support for childcare" will actually limit the availability of the Child Care and Development Block Grant. According to the Children's Defense Fund, approximately 30,000 fewer children will be helped under the proposed child care budget because it does not even keep pace with inflation.

    Ultimately, the Reform Movement believes that poverty reduction, and not caseload reduction, should be a principal goal of our national welfare policy. It is not enough to cite the decline in caseloads - we must make sure that work pays and families do not remain below the poverty line. We believe it is the government's responsibility to provide a safety net for the most vulnerable in our society.

    Additional aspects of President Bush's welfare reform proposal that are of great concern include measures that may seriously threaten the separation of church and state and the promotion of abstinence-only sexuality education. In his speech on Tuesday announcing his welfare reform agenda, the President included several references to the Faith-Based Initiative and methods for using faith as a tool with which to fight poverty and substance abuse. He stated his support for ending "discrimination against faith-based organizations that compete for contracts to provide social services to people who need help." He also said that "one sure way" to treat those with substance abuse problems is to "introduce them to faith." Faith-based organizations certainly deserve support and encouragement for the important work they do and the valuable services they provide. However, if we are to protect the First Amendment and the religious liberty of all Americans, we must ensure that pervasively religious organizations do not receive direct funding from the government, preferential treatment, or exemptions from civil rights regulations. We must also ensure that the beneficiaries of social services provided by faith-based organizations are not subjected to proselytization or religious indoctrination when they go to obtain their government benefits. We will continue to monitor welfare reform policies closely to protect America's "first freedom."

    The President also proposed spending $135 million on abstinence-only sexuality education programs. Contrary to the argument made by abstinence-only advocates, studies have shown that abstinence-only programs do not deter or delay sexual activity. There is no credible scientific evidence that abstinence-only programs that exclude information about contraception are effective. In fact, a 1997 United Nations report that examined 22 HIV/AIDS and comprehensive sexuality education programs, indicates that comprehensive sexuality programs delayed the onset of sexual activity, reduced the number of partners, and decreased the incidence of sexually transmitted disease and unplanned pregnancy.

    Our modern practice of Judaism views sexuality, and its ultimate goal of a healthy and committed relationship, as a matter of religious concern. In a report to the 1998 Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) convention, the Ad Hoc Committee on Human Sexuality stated that, "Jewish religious values are predicated upon the unity of God and the integrity of the world and its inhabitants as divine creations. These values identify wholeness as a fundamental goal of human experience. Sexuality and sexual expression are integral and powerful elements in the potential wholeness of human beings." The Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism passed a resolution in March, 2001 which encouraged synagogues, departments and affiliates to work with synagogue schools, day schools, camps, and youth groups of our movement to "offer age-appropriate courses and programs to all age levels-from our youngest to our oldest members-in comprehensive sexuality education, providing objective information about reproduction, abortion, sexually-transmitted diseases, contraception, sexual orientation, and other issues of sexuality, and, especially, the Jewish values that emphasize the importance of sexuality in the context of healthy committed relationships." The resolution also called on congregations to "support Federal, State, Provincial, and local legislation to provide for the inclusion of comprehensive and age-appropriate sexuality education in the public schools on all levels (from grade school through high school), while opposing Federal, State, Provincial, and local funding only for abstinence-only programs."

    It is too early to tell how the debate will play out between the Administration and Congress. As charged by the resolution "America's Poor," passed at the UAHC Biennial in 1995, the Religious Action Center will continue to "call upon the United States government to maintain its responsibility to ensure an adequate federally guaranteed safety net to protect our nation's most vulnerable populations, and call on the Congress not to pass and the President not to sign legislation that fails to meet this test." Unfortunately, last April, instead of investing in initiatives that would promote the health and well-being of all Americans and that would help us realize the biblical vision that "there shall be no needy among you" (Deuteronomy 15:4), the Administration and Congress enacted massive tax cuts that mainly benefited the most affluent in our society. We fear that the tax cuts have come on the backs of poor parents and their children, and that the President's budget is a continuation of this alarming trend.

    We look forward to an honest evaluation of both the Administration's proposals and Congress' proposals, and are ready to help our community play a critical role in the upcoming debate.

    ###

    The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism is the Washington office of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC) , whose over 900 congregations across North America encompass 1.5 million Reform Jews , and the Central Conference of American Rabbis(CCAR) whose membership includes over 1800 Reform rabbis .




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